Enter the Dragoon: Panzer Dragoon / 3rd of July 2014
Way, way back in 1994, when Sega asked its staff to put forward their ideas for potential new IPs prior to the launch of the company’s latest home gaming device, Yukio Futatsugi happily obliged and submitted a concept for an on-rails shooter and, thankfully, he was not only given the go ahead for the project, but was placed in charge of its development. That venture would ultimately become, of course, none other than the now legendary Panzer Dragoon, which would go on to take its place, along with the following two games in the series, among gaming’s elite, as some of the finest pieces of interactive entertainment, and as visionary works of art.
I remember seeing the original game for the first time, having only a Mega-Drive at that point, I was utterly gobsmacked as I sat, mouth agape, watching a beautifully rendered seven minute opening movie set the scene. Its likes had never been seen before, at least as far as console gaming went, and it set a new benchmark for presentation, not to mention raising the whole video game industry to recognise the importance of its own evolution beyond the realm of what had been previously been thought impossible. From that moment on, video games would strive to achieve a more movie like quality in their cut scenes and storytelling. Whilst many claim that Sega’s design for the Saturn hardware was not forward thinking, there can surely be no denying the fact that its software was clearly ahead of the game.
Panzer Dragoon features a post-apocalyptic setting that features a world of the future, destroyed by an epic war between mankind and the biological terrors of its own making, replete with ruins and archaic technology only just being rediscovered by a civilisation only now starting to establish itself once more. Enter the game’s protagonist, Keil Fluge (he was unnamed in versions outside of Japan), a simple hunter out navigating a canyon with his hunting party when they are attacked by two creatures as they watch a great ship fly overhead, he manages to kill one of them but the other flees and he gives chase, setting in motion a series of events that will see him emerge as the planet’s best, and only hope for survival. Witnessing an epic battle between two dragon riders, Keil watches the defeat of one, only to then be approached by the dying man and, through a merging of their minds, sees the quest that he has been selected for. Keil must then take flight with an armoured blue dragon, and finish what the previous rider had started; he must prevent the Dark Dragon from ever reaching the tower, or else bear witness to the horrors of the ancient age as they are unleashed upon mankind once again.
The game is played out over six, graphically stunning episodes (levels) that cover a variety of settings as Keil follows his nemesis from the sunken ruins of the opening area to the war ravaged capital city where the tower awaits. Once there, the Dark Dragon morphs into an even greater threat prior to the last battle, as Keil struggles to prevent the onset of an age of darkness. As the game is an on-rails shooter, levels play out at a predetermined pace and the player’s control is limited to turning around in 90° segments that ultimately give them a full 360° view of a world where enemies can attack from any side. Within the confines of that space, the player can obviously control Keil’s aim as they strive to take down the myriad enemies that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Thankfully, the player has two different weapons available to them, Keil’s sidearm and the dragon’s homing laser attack that can lock on up to eight different targets simultaneously. There is a small element of strategy involved here as the weapons have differing effects upon enemies, although this is a feature that would be further expanded upon as the series progressed.
Despite its lurid, deeply fascinating and utterly fantastical setting, the world in which Panzer Dragoon is set is also a remarkably grounded one, thanks in no uncertain terms, to some very clever art design. It is a world laid to waste by the combination of biological and mechanical terrors, with its inhabitants based mostly on simple shapes and deriving aesthetic inspiration from the Ottoman Turks and celebrated French comic book artist Moebius, a world based on the guiding principles that George Lucas himself brings to his own film projects; it is a world that is at once both new and yet ancient, it is a world that has been lived in. The simple geometric shapes that comprise the majority of the mechanical creations in this world are also somewhat akin to the designs employed in Star Wars, reminiscing the prism like structures that comprise the Empire’s Star Destroyer and Super Star Destroyer vessels. The main malevolent force at work behind everything throughout the Panzer saga is also a mysterious group known only as the Empire-a group of men corrupted by power, much like the Sith that came before them. This deeply fascinating universe is further enhanced by the extent to which Futatsugi and his team went in creating a rich level of mythology for the game, even going as far as to create their own language for their world. And as a side note, the beautiful Japanese cover for the game also featured artwork by Moebius himself, which was created exclusively for the project.
No discussion of Panzer Dragoon would be complete, of course, without mentioning the epic soundtrack that accompanies the proceedings. Created after the game was finished so as to match the mood as well as the length of the levels, the stunning Yoshitaka Azuma score features a mix of orchestral and synthesised compositions that hold up very well today. In fact, the soundtracks for all three of the Team Andromeda games stand the test of time, comfortably residing amongst the upper echelons of video game soundtracks. The orchestral pieces in particular, though sadly few in numbers, feature wonderful arrangements that, like the game’s advanced story telling features, raised the bar for everything that was to follow, further emphasising the importance of the title.
The original Panzer Dragoon, when it surfaced in early 1995, was a truly mind blowing piece of software, a stunning combination of both style and substance, and a massive step forward in interactive entertainment. Whilst its visual splendour has diminished somewhat with age, its robust mechanics, wonderful art design and incredible soundtrack still leave it in fine standing even today, a truly remarkable achievement for a new development team given very little time to work with a console most commonly famed for its notoriously complex system architecture. Team Andromeda announced themselves to the world as game designers of true merit with their stunning debut, and this reputation would only continue to grow over the following two projects that would see the Panzer Dragoon series go from strength to strength. This series, and indeed, the opening chapter in its story, would become remembered as one the finest of the 32-bit era, and how rightly so that it was.